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Article: Was Jane Austen a Good Reader? Reading Aloud and the Voice of Jane

Pride and Prejudice in three vols
by Liz Ison

Was Jane Austen a Good Reader? Reading Aloud and the Voice of Jane

Continuing this two-part blog post on Jane Austen and reading aloud (see The Jane Austen Reading Aloud Test), let’s turn our listening ear from the male heroes and villains reading aloud in Austen’s novels to Austen herself and ask: was Austen herself a good reader?

Reading aloud in the family circle

Jane was indeed an accomplished reader of her own works. 

According to Austen’s brother Henry,  “she read aloud with very great taste and effect. Her own works, probably, were never heard to so much advantage as from her own mouth” (from Henry Austen, 1818, cited by Constance Hill, 1902). She would read her own works to family and friends, both during composition and after publication. 

Reading her work aloud during the writing process suggests this was a useful exercise in seeing how the story landed, and for receiving feedback. For example, Austen’s niece’s anecdote describing the ‘peals of laughter’ she heard from behind a closed door as Austen and her nieces read aloud from one of her novels, is surely a very satisfactory listener response:

“…when Aunt Jane came to us at Godmersham she used to bring the MS. of whatever novel she was writing with her, and would shut herself up with my elder sisters in one of the bedrooms to read them aloud. I and the younger ones used to hear peals of laughter through the door, and thought it very hard that we should be shut out from what was so delightful.” 

cited by Mary Ann O’Farrell, 2020


Indeed, her novels were almost certainly intended to be read aloud (Halsey, 2012), and we have many anecdotes of this being the case. For example, Sir Henry Holland wrote:

‘I have the picture still before me of Lord Holland lying on his bed, when attacked by gout, his admirable sister, Miss Fox, beside him reading aloud, as she always did on these occasions, some one of Miss Austen’s novels, of which he was never wearied.”

Cited by Katie Halsey, 2012


Jane Austen Sketch by Cassandra Austen

Reading aloud the newly published Pride and Prejudice

Reading aloud from her books after publication gives us a sense of Austen’s excitement in having the finished work heard and performed, especially when the listener was unaware that Austen the reader was also Austen the author!

On the very day Austen received her copies of Pride and Prejudice, she, her mother and other family members read the new novel to their neighbour Miss Benn (not revealing to her who had written it): ‘in the eveng we set fairly at it & read half the 1st vol. to her’.

Three Volumes of Pride and Prejudice


In a revealing comment, Austen shows how important it was to her that the reading was done well, and in the way she had envisaged. She writes somewhat critically of her mother’s reading aloud:


“Our second evening’s reading to Miss Benn had not pleased me so well, but I believe something must be attributed to my Mother’s too rapid way of getting on – and tho’ she perfectly understands the Characters herself, she cannot speak as they ought’.


We can conjecture that Jane Austen would have been the first choice to narrate her novels should audiobook technology have been available to her.  Certainly, reading Austen’s fiction aloud is to be recommended, as Ruth Wilson advocated in The Jane Austen Remedy (2022). 

So, whether you listen on audible or decide to put your partner (or prospective partner) to the Jane Austen read aloud test, turn your listening ear to the pages of these enduring classics and ask yourself: would your reader meet with Austen’s approbation?


Katie Halsey, Jane Austen and her readers, 1786-1945, 2012

Constance Hill, Jane Austen Her Homes and Her Friends, 1902 

Mary Ann O’Farrell, Jane Austen’s Friendship in Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees, Ed. Deidre Lynch, Princeton University Press, 2020

About Liz Ison 

Liz is a lifelong Jane Austen fan.  Liz studied English literature and social science at Cambridge, before training as a speech and language therapist. She has a doctorate from UCL for research into childhood speech and literacy development. Liz trained with The Reader and runs shared reading groups, in person and online, where everything is read aloud. She has edited an anthology “A Poem to Read Aloud for Every Day of the Year”, published 14 Sept 2023. She lives in London. Find on her Instagram: liz.ison

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